[VIEWPOINT]Take care of life’s small matters

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[VIEWPOINT]Take care of life’s small matters

I live in a condominium complex with more than 5,000 households. The entrance is inconvenient as the complex was built by redeveloping an old village on a hill. I always have to detour because this area is always crowded. When residents kept presenting petitions about the problem, a new road was constructed so that two cars could pass each other. The new road became useless in just a few months, however. Illegal parking increased on both sides of the road and cars, once they entered the road, were so entangled with one another that they were stuck for more than 10 minutes.
Likewise, the street in front of the university where I work is only one lane each way. This narrow street, where local and community buses pass, is congested with street vendors’ stands and illegally parked cars that occupy the sidewalk.
These inconveniences make citizens feel irritated in our everyday life and annoy us no less than the gloomy incidents published in the newspapers. So we come to ask the disloyal question: “Should we pay tax to this country?” Citizens are upset, saying that direct voting for heads of local governments gave rise to attempted “mind-reading” and street disorder.
The newspapers these days are filled with soaring political cynicism and criticism against politicians. It is necessary for the press to take interest in huge policy matters, such as the Saemangeum reclamation project, the South Korea-United States alliance and the strategic flexibility of the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, corruption in the political community and the August 31 real estate measures.
It is also very important for the information related to such issues to be delivered to citizens and go through the process of becoming public opinion. But citizens and the media, as well as politicians, are seriously insensitive to the small absurdities of daily life. This may be because we have been accustomed to them for so long.
Last year, I had the chance to visit Tokyo and Hong Kong for a month. The two cities are similar to Seoul in that they have little land and dense populations, but I could not see any illegally parked cars on the street at night when I went out for a walk.
Even though we beat Japan twice in the World Baseball Classic and even if the wave of Korean culture, or hallyu, has swept into Japan, I realized that Japan is still ahead of our country. With no less effort than we use to confront huge social injustices, we should also now achieve small justices in everyday life and seek the dignity proper to a nation that is ushering in an age of an average $20,000 per capita income.
Why, then, can the virtues that citizens should be equipped with not take root in our society? With regard to this question, we need to recall the strict elite education carried out by Western nations that advocate ability-based success in life and the rule of law, and such education’s influence throughout society. Respectable leadership can be a model that teaches self-help and dignity to citizens. Even today, Harvard University makes it a duty for students to live in dormitories and trains them in collective living and the spirit of fair play through tutorials or sports games that take place year around.
In comparison, our education still regards growth and worldly success as its highest virtue, while reducing the importance of morality or knowledge of the humanities that should at the least be taught in schools.
In Western history, the tenacious effort of citizens who tried to restructure daily life greatly contributed to creating a new structure of awareness and lifestyle, no less so than the effort made in education. If we keep this in mind, we see it is important to make an effort to reform, from the bottom up, everyday life in our society too. Not only should we monitor large-scale policies but also make efforts to reflect on our surroundings and reform the delicate power struggles or irregularities hidden in our daily lives. These small practices should also be able to create a wide social consensus among our citizens.
To overcome small resentments in everyday life, the public powers should not fumble between authoritarianism and “mind-reading” but should be equipped with honor and dignity. We should also make every effort to create a society where honor and dignity are valued, and where everyday resentments do not make us gloomy. Isn’t such an effort a no less important part of the social agenda than achieving a $20,000 national income?

* The writer is a professor of history at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chung Hyun-baek
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